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The State of the London Stage: April 2021

Hellos Aplenty as Lockdown Nears an End - And A Sad Goodbye

The State of the London Stage: April 2021 May 17 has long held near-sacrosanct status in and around London theatreland. That's the date earmarked for a return to live performance, albeit to limited audiences, with a further diary entry worth marking of June 21 (the summer solstice no less) when all restrictions on social contacts will be removed and playhouses may - one stresses the word may - be allowed to return to something resembling pre-pandemic capacity.

This scenario is of course, subject to revision, pending a continued successful rollout of the coronavirus vaccine in one of the most vaccination-compliant countries in the world, not to mention the ability of Britain to resist the grave upticks in the virus that are currently on view across the Continent. Still, one lives in hope, not least in a theatre culture that has been down this road before. Last autumn saw a gradual reawakening of some theatres (though by no means all) prior to the abrupt cessation of live performance from Dec. 16 onwards. With luck, the plans indicated below will actually be able to go ahead, in which case this will be a summer worth celebrating indeed!

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Cultural Recovery

It's no exaggeration to say that any return to live performance whatsoever would have been immeasurably harder without various government bailouts. Last summer saw a £1.57 billion rescue package for the arts hailed as "world-beating" by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, followed last week by £261 million in grants to 2272 venues, amongst them some of the smaller but scarcely less significant addresses that don't tend to commandeer the spotlight to the same degree as more heavyweight West End fare.

"This support has allowed us to expand into digital performance and our re-opening planning is now more concrete," said Kennedy Bloomer, artistic director of Islington's Hope Theatre, expressing a gratitude shared by colleagues across the sector. "We have high but cautious hopes to re-open and stay open on the 29 June." More people see a show in London each (non-pandemic) year than attend football matches the length and breadth of the country, so an industry worth in the billions annually has clearly been deemed worth protecting.

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Lloyd Webber Land

Who would have thought that Andrew Lloyd Webber would emerge on the frontline of British theatre during the last year? At precisely the time when one might imagine the 73-year-old to be sequestered away somewhere finessing his new musical Cinderella, Lloyd Webber has instead been a near-constant source of industry support, whether that meant heralding the safety measures in place last summer at the Palladium or touting his uptake of the vaccine in a bid, he wrote on Twitter, "to do anything to get theatres large and small open again and actors and musicians back to work".

You could argue that with a new show circling the Gillian Lynne Theatre (see clip from Cinderella above), and an acclaimed revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat awaiting a return visit to the Palladium, Lloyd Webber had every imperative to be out there tubthumping for the importance of live theatre. But the composer-impresario has outdone himself in his unexpected guise as industry spokesman, no doubt winning newfound gratitude and thanks along the way.

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Look Beyond London

It's always tempting to think of London as the theatrical hotspot, with the odd segue north to Edinburgh during August for the Festival. It's worth noting, therefore, a few regional happenings that are sure to command column inches during the months ahead, detailed below.

*Ralph Fiennes in Four Quartets: the stage and screen star was amongst the first to brave live performance last August when he appeared as the playwright David Hare in a solo play, Beat the Devil, at the Bridge Theatre. From 25 May - 10 July, he can be found touring to four separate addresses in his self-directed take on TS Eliot's sequence of poems first published in 1941.

*South Pacific at Chichester Festival Theatre. This Sussex address tends to favour a classic musical at the centre of its summer repertory, with Me and My Girl and Oklahoma! among recent programming choices of note. So it's no surprise that this year will find CFT artistic director Daniel Evans reviving a further Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, South Pacific, starting performances 5 July and with a leading lady, Gina Beck, who gloriously led Evans's Sheffield (and then West End) revival of Show Boat late in 2015.

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Gone Too Soon

The State of the London Stage: April 2021
Ritter and Luke Treadaway in The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Photo c. Manuel Harlan

It seems impossible, not to mention wrong, that we've had news of the death from a brain tumour, age 54, of the wonderful Paul Ritter, a familiar TV name (Chernobyl, Friday Night Dinners) who shone in countless plays over the years, not least his remarkable turn as Reg in Matthew Warchus's brilliant revival of The Norman Conquests, for which he was a 2009 Tony nominee. I shan't soon forget Ritter as the father left fighting his corner in the original cast of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or as the take-no-prisoners Marc in the 2016 Old Vic revival of Art, to cite just several stage credits out of many. An actor's actor if ever there was one, Ritter will be forever remembered by those of us who love the London theatre.

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What to See and When

Ok, you've got your vaccine/s and are craving live performance again, so what can you see during the summer and when? And what is on hold or - dare one say it - gone for good? Check out our listings below, to be amended and updated every month to keep pace with events.

THE FAMILIAR

*The Mousetrap, from 17 May, this time with a starry cast when, for decades, the play itself has been the star

*Death Drop, from 19 May, not to be confused with the long-running Ira Levin-scripted Broadway mainstay, Deathtrap, of a bygone vintage: the Tuck Island team have returned

*Love Letters, from 19 May: everyone's favourite two-hander is back, socially distanced desks intact

*Everybody's Talking About Jamie, from 20 May: the sleeper hit musical is back even as the film version gets ready itself to land in due course

*Les Miserables the Staged Concert, from 20 May: stars aplenty keep this 1985 long-runner atop the British musical behemoth tree

*Magic Mike Live, from 21 May: the boys are back (and the prosecco, too!)

*Six the Musical, from 21 May: the little show that could keeps on chugging

*Mamma Mia! from 7 June: what better time for an ABBA-themed party than in the clearing from a pandemic?

*The Play That Goes Wrong, from 18 June: even our upside-down times can't dent enthusiasm for this crazy-pants play

*Heathers, from 21 June: return visit to its erstwhile West End home for adaptation of 1989 film

*Tina the Musical, from 24 June: Anna Mae Bullock herself may be opting to step out of the spotlight but the show honouring her life and art continues

*Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, from 1 July: the best Joseph in my experience, Jac Yarrow, returns to the stage that made him a star

*The Prince of Egypt, from 1 July: a musical about (among other topics) a plague reopens in the immediate wake of a plague

*Pretty Woman, from 8 July: a change of venue but same stylish clothes (one assumes) for this film-turned-stage fable

*The Book of Mormon, from 12 July: South Park-style satire more than ever should be balm for the soul

*Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, from 21 July: the play that feels like a musical is back where it began

*The Phantom of the Opera, from 21 July: a new look is promised for this recordbreaking long-runner (and, yes, I was at the 1986 opening night)

*Jersey Boys, from 28 July: Four Seasons and what looks to be nine theatrical lives for the unstoppable Frankie Valli juggernaut

*Back to the Future, from 20 August: Roger Bart makes his West End debut

*& Juliet, from 24 Sept: Shakespeare given a top-40 spin

THE FRESH

*RE:EMERGE, from May (dates tbc), a season of new plays with an enticing array of stars including Gemma Arterton and The Crown's own Princess Diana, Emma Corrin

*Cruise, from 18 May: solo play can be seen live after ten days in April available as a livestream

*Amelie the Musical, from 21 May: this Broadway flop is getting a renewed berth in London following an acclaimed run Off West End

*Cinderella, from 25 June, by which point we'll know whether the book writer for Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest, the protean Emerald Fennell, has won any of the several Oscars for which she is nominated this month

*Frozen the Musical, from August (dates tbc), in which Drury Lane will be thawed to the stage savvy of Disney

PLUS new seasons aborning at such diverse addresses as the National Theatre, Shakespeare's Globe, Hampstead Theatre and the Kiln, while the likes of the Bridge, Donmar and Almeida, amongst many others, are sure to weigh in soon

THE FORGOTTEN (but not by us!)

*Sunday in the Park with George: it looks like the glorious Jake Gyllenhaal-Annaleigh Ashford revival of Stephen Sondheim's soul-searing musical, co-written with James Lapine, won't make it to the West End during 2021, but surely 2022 beckons for this bounteous take on the art of making art?

Main image Six the Musical photo c. Pamela Raith


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From This Author Matt Wolf